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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blur: Modern Life Is Rubbish

BLUR: MODERN LIFE IS RUBBISH (1993)

1) For Tomorrow; 2) Advert; 3) Colin Zeal; 4) Pressure On Julian; 5) Star Shaped; 6) Blue Jeans; 7) Chemical World; 8) Sunday Sunday; 9) Oily Water; 10) Miss America; 11) Villa Rosie; 12) Coping; 13) Turn It Up; 14) Resigned; 15*) Young And Lovely; 16*) Popscene.

"He's a twentieth century boy / With his hands on the rails / Trying not to be sick again / And holding on for tomorrow". Compare this with Ray Davies' "I'm a twentieth century man, but I don't want to be here", and this makes it obvious what the big difference is between the Kinks and Blur — Ray Davies, sick of today, stares back into the past, whereas Damon Albarn, perhaps equally sick, is still determined to peek ahead into the future. Without this difference, Blur would never have become superstars in the 1990s: «anglophiles» they may be all right, yet their love-and-hate story with England is that of today and tomorrow, not today and yesterday.

Modern Life Is Rubbish came to be seen as the «true beginning» of Blur and one of the first proper «Britpop» records, although I sure as heck wish they'd at least called it «neo-Britpop» or something, because what are we going to do with the Kinks and the Small Faces otherwise? As far as the term itself is concerned, the key change would be seen as lyrical: Albarn borrows the patented Ray Davies trademark of writing small character portraits and impressions of everyday life in contemporary Great Britain, «localizing» his visions of boy-girl and protagonist-environ­ment relationships and, paradoxically, making it easier to empathize for anyone, British or non-British. But there are changes in the music, too, since the album only preserves a few scattered traces of the Madchester / baggy / shoegazing style of Leisure — as a rule, though, the band re­turns to a much more conventional pop-rock sound: traditional structures with improved produc­tion, so that the music can now appeal to their contemporaries and their parents alike.

The decision to «go quintessentially British» was brilliant: suddenly it became obvious that Blur had both the songwriting talent and a way to use it for some meaningful purpose. This is what makes ʽFor Tomorrowʼ one of the greatest songs of the decade — the combination of an unfor­gettable melodic hook, a certain nonchalant British cool, and a message with which so many people could identify: "...says modern life is rubbish, I'm holding on for tomorrow". Rummaging around in my mind right now, I cannot come up with any immediate examples of songs that would strike such a fine balance between present-day disillusionment and latter-day optimism. And that la-la-la chorus — simplistic as hell, but so invigorating, doesn't it actually make you want to get off your ass and go do something?

The only problem of Modern Life is that, at this stage, Blur are only beginning to get into that image, and they wouldn't really start to feel completely at home with it until the next album. To put it bluntly, Modern Life is just too damn long: even without any bonus tracks, it runs close to an hour, when records like these should not ever run over 45 minutes. I am almost certain that even some major fans might feel the same way — the difference being in what to cut out to re­duce the factor of occasional boredom. Personally, I would suggest ripping out the three-song streak of ʽOily Waterʼ, ʽMiss Americaʼ, and ʽVilla Rosieʼ if we had to go that way — but perhaps even better still would be to simply reduce some of the songs' running lengths. (One trace of their shoegaze legacy is that they still preserve these lengthy, tedious, «atmospheric» instrumental passages — ʽOily Waterʼ and ʽResignedʼ are the major culprits).

Once you have mentally condensed the record into less of a sprawl and more of a focused, eco­nomically painted landscape, the result commands total respect. The loud rockers with distorted guitars carry vicious fun — ʽAdvertʼ with its snappy "say something, say something else!" chorus (be sure to match the context and listen to it on headphones in the middle of an underground station, with a bunch of idiotic adverts staring you in the face from the other end of the platform); ʽChemical Worldʼ, its ironically swirling harsh riff, and anthemic chorus about "putting the holes in" that you gleefully sing along without the least understarding of what it is supposed to mean; ʽCopingʼ commits a little copyright crime by stealing the major hook from Argent's ʽHold Your Head Upʼ, but does that in good spirit — the hook was rather stern and gloomy for Argent's posi­tive message, and here Blur are using that riff for their psychotic purposes rather than cheer you up, so it's okay. Besides, who in 1993 remembered anything about Argent anyway?

Elsewhere, they go for direct imitations of the old Kinks/Small Faces style — ʽSunday Sundayʼ is essentially Ray Davies with crunchier guitars (but the same brass section), and the tender balla­dee­ring style of ʽBlue Jeansʼ, while melodically different from the usual Kinks patterns, still seems to hearken back to Ray's «child-like» musings. But just because Albarn and Coxon are both naturals, these songs never turn into copycat exercises: it's not as if Coxon spent hours and hours trying to decode the style of Dave Davies, and it's not as if Albarn mutated his voice to shift from his own natural pitch to Ray's much higher one. Maybe Ray Davies could have written the lyrics to ʽColin Zealʼ, which, after all, simply expands on the subject of ʽA Well Respected Manʼ (I am not so sure about the line "He's a modern retard, he's terminal lard", though), but he would have been more condescending and maybe even merciful to his assassinated charac­ter than these young whippersnappers. Fresh blood, you know.

Some of the expanded editions of the album add ʽPopsceneʼ as a bonus track — the band's single from March 1992 that basically announced the arrival of the «new Blur», but flopped and only came to be seen as historically significant in retrospect. I must say, though, that I have never understood what was the big deal with that song, other than it being fast and furious and a little teasing, but the chorus ("hey, hey, come out tonight, popscene, all right") is just plain stupid. In fact, I'd say there is nothing like that song on the album proper (even its tight rockers like ʽAd­vertʼ and ʽCopingʼ make more sense), and all the better for it, so there.

Ultimately, the record certainly deserves a thumbs up, but they are still educating themselves, and there is too much of an inspirational gap between ʽFor Tomorrowʼ and the rest of these songs to make it feel as smoothly accomplished as some of its follow-ups. A «stylistic leap», yes, but not nearly as much a «quantum leap in quality» in between the underrated Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish as people often make it out to be, I'd say. Still, the title alone is priceless, isn't it? Such a great discovery for all ages, and yet, seemingly, only been used once so far. I guess if the year 1993 had a legal representative, it'd probably sue Blur for libel. 

2 comments:

  1. My biggest problem with this album is that while it is enjoyable to listen, I can't remember any individual songs, except for ""For Tomorrow". They are not singalong songs, nor are the hooks easily memorable.

    That may be why its successor Parklife was still a major step forward: memorable songs, hooky and choruses that stay in memory (Girls who are boys who like girls... Parklife!).

    No problem with the thumbs up though.

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  2. >Some of the expanded editions of the album add ʽPopsceneʼ as a bonus track

    I'd only ever known the American CD version, so this was a surprise. Looked the album up on Discogs and jeez there have to be three or four different cuts of it!

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